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Should the Church Bear Witness to the State?

There is a certain strand of Anabaptist two-kingdom theology that says church and state should be so entirely separate that the church has nothing to say to the state. The church, according to this view, has no call to “bear witness” to the state. While I don’t think a church that nags the state is helpful, neither do I think Christ’s call is for his followers to have nothing at all to say to those in government.

One confusing factor, it seems to me, is that when we hear “the government,” we tend to forget that this mysterious “other” is made up of persons. And the gospel of Christ has something to say to every person under heaven, if they will only listen–and if we will only speak.

This way of seeing “the government” as a faceless institution is oddly akin, it seems to me, to Luther’s version of two-kingdom theology, whereby a Christian who serves in government suddenly is no longer subject to Christ’s commands to his individual followers, but may do things that Christian “persons” must never do. Neither Luther nor “the quiet in the land” have quite the right version of two-kingdom theology, I suggest.

At any rate, New Testament believers have clear precedent for speaking truth to power, even if we may rightly be uncomfortable with some connotations of that phrase. When Jesus called Paul as his messenger, he said, “He is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings…” (Acts 9:15). How did Paul respond? “I was not disobedient… I stand here testifying both to small and great…” (Acts 27:22). There may be only a few who are “great” in the world’s eyes, and perhaps only a few Christians are called as Paul was to speak to them.  But speak the church must, for the gospel speaks to all.

So, the church must speak to the state–or, to say the same thing another way, to state officials. But what must we say? Our witness must be, as Paul’s was, a declaration of the gospel of Christ. And make no mistake: the gospel is a message which affects all of life. It calls state officials to personal faith, and it also calls them to account for the public policies they have promoted.

Again, we have Paul for an example. Perhaps his witness before the Roman governor Felix is most revealing. We read that Felix “sent for Paul and heard him speak about faith in Christ Jesus” (Acts 24:24). More specifically, we are told that what convicted Felix was when Paul “reasoned about righteousness and self-control and the coming judgment” (v. 25).

How might these topics have impacted governor Felix’s life, both public and private? In reverse order: “The coming judgment” would have been a reminder to a governor that he, one used to dishing out judgment, would someday face his own judgment–an after-death judgment that “was probably not a significant part of his belief system,”1. “Self-control” may have reminded Felix of the immorality of his personal life, including how “he had lusted after [his wife Drusilla] while she was still the teenage bride of Azizus the king of Emesa.”2 Talk of “righteousness,” which could equally rightly be translated “justice,” would have stung Felix, who was seeking a bribe from Paul (Acts 24:26) and about to unjustly leave him in prison as a favor to the Jews (v. 27).

Notice how Paul’s witness did not shy away from how the gospel impacted Felix’s public life as a state official. Indeed, “‘justice’ and ‘self-control’ may be mentioned to indicate qualities particularly required of Felix and other rulers when they are measured in judgment.”3

More from commentator David G. Peterson:

Genuine faith in Christ involves a change of allegiance and therefore a change in behavior and priorities. Paul presented this challenge in terms that were particularly applicable to Felix and Drusilla… The gospel presentation to Felix and Drusilla involved… a rather vigorous appeal to their consciences to recognize their guilt before God, and their consequent need to respond with faith in Christ Jesus. With a few brief phrases, Luke has illustrated how the gospel was presented and applied to the specific situation of a Gentile ruler…4

Do I hear echoes of a pastor today in, say, the Oval Office? Reminding a president that he, too, will face judgment, that his adultery is a stain before God, and that he will be held accountable for the injustices he has promoted through his public office?

No, let us not nag the government officials whom God has “placed in order” (Rom. 13) over us. (That sentence deserves its own blog post, I am sure.) But neither let us imagine that the church has nothing to say to the state. For the church has the gospel and–if we will only live the gospel first to make it credible–it must witness of this gospel to every person under heaven.

So if God gives you the ear of some state official, high or low, pluck up your courage like Paul, and speak!

This post is only a glance at a big topic. Other biblical examples besides Paul before Felix deserve consideration, and many practical questions face us from our own experience. Do you have thoughts that can help the church bear a more gospel-shaped witness to those in power? Share them below.

  1. Ben Witherington, The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, 715
  2. Ibid.
  3. David Peterson, The Acts of the Apostles (Pillar Commentary), 641.
  4. Ibid.

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